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Venus, Cupid, and a satyr

Alessandro Varotari, called Padovanino (?)

(Padua, 1588 – Venice 1649)

The painting’s provenance was probably a sale to Scipione Borghese (1608) by Cardinal Sfondrato. The mythological-allegorical subject was widely adopted in Venetian circles during the 16th century. Previously referred to a prototype by Veronese, it is currently considered a late derivation of a model by Titian.


Object details

Prima metà del Seicento (?)
oil on canvas
cm 117 x 110

Eighteenth-century frame, outer frieze with lotus leaves/palmettes

142 x 136 x 12 cm

Restoration 2007




(?) Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrato, 1608 (Della Pergola, 1955, p. 136); Van Dyck, 1622-23; Borghese Collection, Inventory 1693, Room V of the Udienza, no. 68 (Della Pergola, 1964, 28, p. 457, no. 301); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, “room of the Venuses”, p. 12 (Mariotti, 1892, p. 85, no. 18); Piancastelli, ms, 1891, p. 52. Purchased by the Italian state, 1902.

  • 1996/1997 Lecce, Fondazione Memmo
  • 2007 Belluno, Palazzo Crepadona - Pieve di Cadore, Palazzo della Magnifica Comunità
  • 2021 Mantova, Palazzo Te
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1952 Augusto Cecconi (cleaning)
  • 2007 Abacus snc (restoring, relining, restoration of the paiting)
  • 2021 Erredici (X-ray)


A dark green curtain embellished with a golden bands creates the background for the figures depicted in this painting, all situated in the foreground but scaled in relation to one another. The outermost character, and the only one to be depicted full-length standing on a high plinth, is clearly Cupid. Nude, with small wings on his shoulders, he is busy carving his bow, but has stopped to turn and look at the observer. The bow, as well as Cupid’s left leg, is resting on a quiver (equipped with several arrows and an elegant red ribbon to strap it on), on which some shavings have fallen. Between Cupid’s legs, a red drape can be glimpsed on the plinth, while in plain view, almost on the edge, is a small, richly embossed, two-handled container (a mask can be glimpsed), probably to hold and dispense perfumed ointments or medicinal balms. Venus sits on the plinth, also completely nude except for the white and amaranth drapes covering her lap. Pearl earrings enhance her hairstyle, and her blond curly hair is partially gathered up. Her left hand holds one of the arrows of Cupid, who she turns to look at; her right hand also clasps some arrows, and rests in the space between the two doves, her recurring attributes. Standing out behind her, against the blue sky, is the figure of a satyr, dark and almost monstrous, his arms raised and carrying a basket laden with fruit.

The events surrounding the provenance of the painting are unknown, although it was already in the Borghese collection in the early 1720s when Antoon Van Dyck portrayed it in his Italian sketchbook along with other works by Titian in the picture gallery. Given this early mention, it cannot be ruled out that it was therefore among the works purchased by Scipione Borghese from Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrato in 1608 (Della Pergola, 1955).

The attribution to Titian, which stands out in Van Dyck’s folio, is confirmed a little later by Manilli (1650), who recalls “the painting of Venus, with Cupid in front, and a Satyr in the background” in the villa, located in the Hermaphrodite room (now rooms XVI, XVII and XVIII, then a single room) together with the “Crouching Venus” by Paris Bordon (inv. 119) and one of the Bacchanals by Titian copied by Cavalier d’Arpino. However, and should one wish to identify our painting with the “painting of a Venus with Cupid, and two white doves” in the inventory compiled around 1633 (Corradini), Titian’s authorship had already been questioned (“author uncertain”), and never reconsidered in later inventories.

In 1693, “Venus with Cupid and a Satyr with a Basket of Fruit on his Head” appeared in the Sala dell’Udienza of the Palazzo Borghese as a work by Paolo Veronese (Della Pergola, 1964), and so in the catalogue dated 1790 (De Rinaldis, 1937) and then in the fidecommissario list of 1833. Venturi attributes the work to “a follower of little talent” considering it a “ramshackle composition”. Giulio Cantalamessa disagreed with this definition and in his subsequent handwritten notes to Venturi’s edition, on the one hand recalls Van Dyck’s sketch and on the other rejects the attribution to Paolo Veronese as absurd. Paola Della Pergola considers the painting to be a copy of a copy by Paolo (Pignatti).

More recently, there is a tendency to attribute the painting to the circle of Titian in a broader sense, either his or derived from models widely used in Titian’s workshop.

In this regard, Herrmann Fiore (1995) referred to a work remembered in the house of the Paduan nobleman Galeazzo “Relogio” (Dondi dall’Orologio) by Ridolfi, namely “a capriccio of a woman with naked arms, holding on her knees the ball of the World within which a small child appears: there is a young man with snakes in his hand, & a monster holding a cup full of fruit”. While this description clearly does not correspond to the composition of our painting, the “monster with a cup full of fruit” nevertheless recalls the highly successful Titian prototype - the figure with raised arms holding a basket or a tray or a plate - replicated in infinite male and female variations, adapted for satyrs or for the various Salomes or Judiths, for maidens or youths, found in allegories scattered in public and private collections, European or overseas (including the Louvre; Hampton Court; Munich, Alte Pinakothek; Chicago, Art Institute), and also in this Borghese version. It can be considered a direct product of Titian’s workshop, if we accept the attribution to Girolamo Dente (Le botteghe di Tiziano), and thus be placed between the 1540s and 1550s; or rather as a derivative invention, autonomous but realised on the basis of highly recognisable Titian figures, later, at a time when the Titian of ancient fables, Venuses and Cupids was highly fashionable again. In the latter case, the considerations of Longhi, who attributed the painting to Titian’s school, believing it to be a “generic imitation of Venetian classics by some archaic gourmand in the style of Padovanino”, are not trivial. This hypothesis has also been put forward by more recent critics who refer to Alessandro Varotari, or his circle, as the creator of our painting (Cappelletti 2014). It is precisely in Varotari, Paduan by origin, Titian by adoption, that we may find the point of connection between the painting’s clear Titian model (in the style and prototypes used) and the Paduan painter’s ability, well known at the time, in imitating Titian’s creations to the point of inventing his style. He could therefore be the author of our painting, recorded earlier in one of the most important picture galleries in Rome. Between the end of the 16th century and early 17th century, Rome was the most important place for the success of Titian, the author of mythological allegories. His works entered the collections of the Roman cardinals where they were admired, studied, copied; it is also where Varotari, who was in Rome with certainty between 1614 and 1618 (or perhaps the end of 1615), was intent on copying Titian’s Bacchanal, then located in Villa Aldobrandini. If this episode is known, and documented if only by the paintings that still exist (Accademia Carrara, Bergamo) as well as by ancient biographers, the outlines of this Roman sojourn still need to be filled in. The circumstances that may have fostered his success, if not motivated it, need to be investigated perhaps in the Paduan context of origin, the scholars and philologists, antiquarians and collectors in continuous dialogue with well-known correspondents, in Rome and everywhere in the ‘Republic of letters’. Similarly, the relationship with Cardinal Borghese and his collection, which he may have visited with the same intentions of studying (and copying), still needs to be investigated. According to Boschini, he imposed himself on the Roman scene as a sort of alter Titianus, just like “the Virtuosi of Rome, Professors of Art” who “went to see him at work, were amazed and marvelled” at how he was so “valorous at copying” (Boschini, 1674). Varotari may have attracted the cardinal’s attention, to the point, perhaps, of producing a painting so close to the master as to be considered authentic. In the absence of evidence, the hypothesis remains a suggestion: what is certain is that in the first decades of its presence in the picture gallery, the canvas was undoubtedly considered to be by Titian. This is the name that certainly accompanied it on its entry into the collection, whether one wants to follow the Varotari hypothesis or succumb to the more popular (and more certain) one of a provenance from the sale of Paolo Emilio Sfondrato's collection to Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1608 (Della Pergola, 1955).

The painting was cleaned in 1952 (Augusto Cecconi) and subjected to more thorough operations in 2007. In the restoration report, preserved in the Museum’s Restoration Archive, reference is made to a previous re-lining of the original canvas and the presence, on the re-lined canvas, of the fidei-commissum plaque “fidei-commissum inscription of the day of 3 June 1834 ... room of the Venuses no. 18 / Venus with satyr and Cupid by Paolo Veronese” and an inscription at the top centre “27”.

   Maria Giovanna Sarti

  • C. Ridolfi, Le maraviglie dell’arte, Venezia 1648, p. 180.
  • I. Manilli, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Roma 1650, p. 99 (Tiziano).
  • M. Boschini, La carta del navegar pittoresco, Venezia 1660, pp. 168-174.
  • M. Boschini, Le ricche minere della pittura veneziana, Venezia 1674, snp (“Alessandro Varottari Padoano seguace di Tiziano”).
  • Inventario fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, p. 12 (edito in Mariotti, 1892, p. 85, n. 18) (Paolo Veronese).
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese, 1891, Archivio della Galleria Borghese (ms A/155), p. 52.
  • F. Mariotti, La legislazione delle belle arti, Roma 1892, p. 85, n. 18.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 93 (scuola di Tiziano).
  • G. Morelli, Della Pittura Italiana. Studi Storici Critici: Le Gallerie Borghese e Doria Pamphili in Roma, Milano 1897, p. 240 (copia da Paolo Veronese), p. 243 (scuola di Tiziano, ma copia da Paris Bordon).
  • G. Lafenestre – E. Richtenberger, La peinture en Europe. Rome, 2, Les musées, les collections particulières, les palais, Paris 1905, p. 60, n. 124 (scuola di Tiziano).
  • G. Cantalamessa, note manoscritte (1907, 1912, 1918) in A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, Archivio Galleria Borghese, snp, n. 124.
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie italiane. I.R. Galleria Borghese (1928), in R. Longhi, Saggi e ricerche 1925-1928, 1 (Edizione delle opere complete, II, 1), Firenze 1967, p. 339 (Scuola di Tiziano, forse Padovanino).
  • A. De Rinaldis, Documenti inedita per la storia della R. Galleria Borghese in Roma. III. Un catalogo della quadreria Borghese nel palazzo a Campo Marzio, redatto nel 1760, in “Archivi”, IV, 1937, pp. 218-232, in particolare p. 231, n. 15.
  • E. Tietze-Conrat, The Wemyss Allegory in the Art Institute of Chicago, in “The Art Bulletin”, 27, 1945, pp. 269-271, in particolare p. 270 (Paolo Veronese?).
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I dipinti, I, Roma 1955, pp. 136-137 (copia da Veronese).
  • P. Della Pergola, L’inventario Borghese del 1693. II, in “Arte antica e moderna”, 28 (1964), pp. 451-467, in particolare p. 457, n. 301 (Paolo Veronese).
  • T. Pignatti, Veronese, Venezia 1976, II, p. 205, n. 53.
  • U. Ruggieri, Il Padovanino, Soncino 1993, pp. 48-53.
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, L’ ”Allegoria coniugale” di Tiziano del Louvre e le derivazioni, connesse con Venere che benda Amore, in Tiziano. Amor Sacro e Amor Profano, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, 22 marzo – 22 maggio 1995), a cura di M.G. Bernardini, Milano 1995, pp. 411-420, in particolare p. 413 (copia seicentesca, anonimo).
  • L. Ventura, in Immagini degli dei. Mitologia e collezionismo tra ‘500 e ‘600, catalogo della mostra (Lecce, Fondazione Memmo, 7 dicembre 1996 – 31 marzo 1997), a cura di C. Cieri Via, Milano 1996, pp. 172-173, n. 29.
  • S. Corradini, Un antico inventario della quadreria del Cardinale Borghese, in Bernini scultore. La nascita del Barocco in casa Borghese, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Galleria Borghese, 15 maggio – 20 settembre 1998), a cura di A. Coliva e S. Schütze, Roma 1998, pp. 449-456, in particolare p. 454, n. 207 (Muro Torto).
  • M. Gregori, Un amico di Simone Peterzano a Venezia, in “Paragone”, LIII, 41-42, 2002, pp. 21-39, in particolare p. 29 (Parrasio Michiel).
  • E. Dal Pozzolo, La “bottega” di Tiziano: sistema solare e buco nero, in “Studi tizianeschi”, 4, 2006, pp. 53-98, in particolare p. 85 (Girolamo Dente).
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Galleria Borghese. Roma scopre un tesoro. Dalla pinacoteca ai depositi. Un museo che non ha più segreti, Milano 2006, p. 44 (Alessandro Varotari, attr.).
  • E.M. Dal Pozzolo, in Tiziano. L’ultimo atto, catalogo della mostra (Belluno, Palazzo Crepadona – Pieve di Cadore, Palazzo della Magnifica Comunità, 2007), a cura di Lionello Puppi, Milano 2007, pp. 419-420, n. 114 (Girolamo Dente).
  • M. Loh, Titian remade. Repetition and transformation of early modern Italian art, Los Angeles 2007, p. 5.
  • G. Tagliaferro, B. Aikema con M. Mancini, A.J. Martin, Le botteghe di Tiziano, Firenze 2009, p. 90 (Girolamo Dente).
  • F. Cappelletti, Room of the Venuses, in Display of Art in the Roman Palace. 1550-1750, a cura di G. Feigenbaum, Los Angeles 2014, pp. 229-230, in particolare p. 229 (cerchia di Alessandro Varotari).
  • F. Cappelletti, I camerini delle Belle, in Venere. Natura, ombra e bellezza, catalogo della mostra (Mantova, Palazzo Te, 12 settembre – 12 dicembre 2021), a cura di C. Cieri Via, Milano 2021, pp. 75-81, in particolare p. 76 (ambito veneto).
  • G. Quaranta, in Venere. Natura, ombra e bellezza, catalogo della mostra (Mantova, Palazzo Te, 12 settembre – 12 dicembre 2021), a cura di C. Cieri Via, Milano 2021, pp. 180-181, n. 37.
  • M.G. Sarti, Tiziano, la fortuna e la collezione di Scipione Borghese, in Tiziano. Venere che benda Amore e i dipinti degli ultimi anni, a cura di M.G. Sarti, Roma 2022 (Galleria, collana di studi della Galleria Borghese, 1), pp. 15-23, in particolare pp. 19-23.